LEXINGTON – Butler men's basketball coach Brad Stevens won't want to have any discussion in reference to today's NCAA Tournament game with Marquette at Rupp Arena (7:45 p.m., CBS) that involves the word “brick.” However, that is precisely what today's game signifies for the Bulldog program.
A win today will represent far more than just the Bulldogs' 28th victory of the season (against six defeats). A win today will advance Stevens' program to its fifth Sweet 16 in 11 years, and be yet another “brick” in the building of the perception, within the state of Indiana, for his team.
“I think the last four, five years, Butler has obviously proven they are a top tier program, and a program that deserves respect,” Golden Eagle senior guard Trent Lockett said.
That's a nice compliment, but proves my point about work still needing to be done in terms of raising the awareness of Butler's program. The Bulldogs haven't been a “top tier program” for four or five years, they started advancing to Sweet 16s on a semi-regular basis in 2003.
And another thing, Butler didn't just become good under Stevens' guidance. This program has averaged over 24 victories per season for the past 17 years. Gordon Hayward was missing teeth – not half-court heaves – at that time.
It's interesting to cover Butler because this is a program that clearly carries far more relevance from the national press than from within its own state.
There is just a pair of daily print media outlets that cover this program on a regular basis, and neither is a certainty to be in attendance on road trips. Yet, Stevens is on a first-name basis with college basketball writers from New York to Los Angeles.
The same can be said for recruits.
Butler is doing a fantastic job of finding talent across the country. Its 2013 recruiting class involves four players from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. But it still is an infrequent occurrence for an Indiana kid to spurn a Big Ten offer in favor of playing for the Bulldogs.
All of that however, is changing. Slowly, but it is changing.
Butler was never going to be given its due respect as a member of the Horizon League. A year ago, it jumped into the more challenging Atlantic 10 Conference, but even that didn't carry much cache with basketball fans throughout Indiana.
In light of the Bulldogs' losing in the final seconds at LaSalle earlier this season – without an injured Rotnei Clarke – the derision rained down from cynics who were not cognizant of just how good the Explorers were (ask Kansas State's Bruce Weber this morning).
Basketball fans in this state would've always had a difficult time grasping the quality of programs such as UMass, George Washington, and the like. On a related note: The Atlantic 10 is 6-0 in the NCAA Tournament thus far.
The Bulldogs' joining the Big East Conference earlier this week is a monumental “brick,” if you will, that will begin to resonate with fans, media and recruits.
“It's very cool,” Butler athletic director Barry Collier said in wake of the news.
Butler's schedule next season will feature nationally-renowned programs such as Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova, long-standing rival Xavier, Creighton, and today's opponent, Marquette, among others.
“I think Butler, the thing about them is they play extremely hard,” Marquette senior center Chris Otule said. “When you play in the Big East, each team plays extremely hard (and) I think Butler brings that extreme toughness. They'll fit in well.”
Hinkle Fieldhouse began to fill up this season with repeated sell-outs and I can only imagine the supersonic pace of sales heading into next season, as Bulldog fans have begun to take notice of what this program has achieved.
The national media and recruits - from afar - have already done so. Today's game is another opportunity to add another brick in the building process.